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Keaton's Silent Shorts

Beyond the Laughter

Gabriella Oldham

Publication Year: 2010

Filling a major gap in the critical canon, Gabriella Oldham’s study of Buster Keaton’s nineteen silent short films shot between 1920 and 1923 chronicles the rapid growth in the filmmaker’s understanding of what makes both comedy and film successful.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Front Cover

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Copyright Page

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pp. iv


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pp. vii


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pp. ix

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Chapter 1: Introduction

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pp. 1-11

It started with King Kong. That film marked my first visit to a New York revival house and the end of watching classic films on television. It was also the moment I picked up a flyer in the lobby advertising a silent film comedy series at the Elgin Theater...

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Chapter 2: One Week

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pp. 12-25

In his first independent two-reel film, Keaton produced a comedy with a layer-by-Iayer accumulation of visual gags within a simple and familiar plot. Buster and his bride, played with blushing enthusiam by Sybil Seeley, build a home together-literally-and cope with obstacles that threaten their bliss. The first title sets the mood...

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Chapter 3: Convict 13

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pp. 26-42

Only a fragment of Convict 13 from a European archive had been available until the 1970's when Raymond Rohauer pieced together the missing sequences of Buster Keaton's first dream short. Without the restoration, Convict 13 was a relentless display of mildly comic physical violence in a prison setting. Tile missing dream-frame gave the film a new atmosphere and perspective...

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Chapter 4: The Scarecrow

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pp. 43-55

One reviewer of The Scarecrow announced that " without parallel .. . is the phenomenal rise of Bust er Keaton. In many parts of the country exhibitions make Keaton the whole show fora week, playing tile Keaton feature (The Saphead) a long with a Keaton comic two-reeler."1 The Scarecrow reveals yet another facet of Buster's...

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Chapter 5: Neighbors

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pp. 56-68

Neighbors sets Buster's poetry of romance within an optimistic Romeo and Juliet tale. The original name of this short was Mailbox, which also evokes a twentieth-century Pyramis and Thisbe wearing porkpie and gingham, passing notes through a barrier to love. 1 This love story, however, 'leads to marriage...

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Chapter 6: The Haunted House

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pp. 69-81

The Haunted House has been considered one of Keaton's least-succssful shorts. Of the nineteen short films, this one most resembles two distinct one-reelers joined by ...

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Chapter 7: Hard Luck

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pp. 82-92

For the first time in more than sixty-five years since its release in 1921, Hard Luck was screened at the Biograph Theatre in New York City. Before his death, Raymond Rohauer had located the fragments of this "lost" film in European vaults and, with David Gill and Kevin Brownlow of Thamcs Television in London...

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Chapter 8: The High Sign

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pp. 93-107

Keaton shelved The High Sign after production in the first two months of 1920 and premiered with One Week. Because it is chronologically Keaton's seventh released film, we might tend to consider it as tile next "rung in his ladder." We must remember, though...

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Chapter 9: The Goat

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pp. 108-124

The Goat is the "most densely textured" of Keaton's abort film s thus far, weaving strands from Hard Luck, Convict 13, The Scarecrow, and One Week. l Keaton converts the amusing concept of duality from The Scarecrow into a poignant look at life equaling truth/untmth, fairness/unfairness, certainty/uncertainty...

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Chapter 10:The Playhouse

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pp. 125-145

Hamlet once mused, "TIle play's the thing." Enter Keaton punctually on the cue "perchance to dream" with a quick run and pratfall, to conjure a daydream of extraordinary visions. In The Playhouse, all the world is indeed a stage-yet for all the stage, still a fiIm. Keaton rolls his memories of vaudeville straight through the...

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Chapter 11: The Boat

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pp. 146-165

Having drowned illusions in The Playhouse, Buster tries taming the storms of Life and literally goes out to sea to do so. The Boat is a near-perfect depiction of Keaton-style calamity, futility and disaster, without total destruct ion. This short has been considered Keaton at his thwarted best; the epitome of the little man...

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Chapter 12: The Paleface

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pp. 166-186

From the oil wells on the horizon to Buster's slapshoe moccasins, The Paleface is a study in naturalistic comedy. Surpassing Neighbors in which the setting spawned many slapstick routines, here the landscape welcomes both comic and dramatic situations...

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Chapter 13: Cops

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pp. 187-208

Cops has always been more than just a chase film . It is a self portrait drawn from a reflection in a fun-house mirror, it is a ripped Valentine's Day card, it is a cherished dream from which one sadly awakens to call it pointless...

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Chapter 14: My Wife's Relations

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pp. 209-233

My Wife's Relations is seldom mentioned with the ardor of other Keaton "classic" short films like Cops or One Week . Even the title seems to clash with the roster of his other relatively simple titles. Blesh, called it, "Like an early Keystone, ... little more...

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Chapter 15: The Blacksmith

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pp. 234-249

Falling right on the spike heels of My Wife's Relations, The Blacksmith is it refreshing, although regrettably weak, return to Buster's innocent punnery, "old-fashioned" rivalry with Joe, and romantic boy-wants-girl fare. Keaton lets Buster master his own...

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Chapter 16: The Frozen North

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pp. 250-267

Keaton escaped the bustle of the Talmadge household to film The Frozen North on location in the High Sierra (where he would also film Our Hospitality and the underwater sequences of The Navigator) 1 One reviewer stressed its wintry setting by calling The Frozen North "a broad burlesque on the prevailing 'snow' picture" of...

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Chapter 17: Daydreams

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pp. 268-289

Daydreams is like an album with photographs of Buster frozen in time, a collection of scenes-with-variations from his past films. Many episodes in Daydreams connect to earlier films, as if Keaton is reviewing the early stages of Buster's life with the jaded eye of shows to us of a special moment, while ensemble, the photographs ...

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Chapter 18: The Electric House

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pp. 290-311

On the second day of shooting The Eleclric House in the spring of 1921, Keaton was riding his newest prop, an escalator, to develop gags when without warning, it began to speed up. "Before he could jump clear, a slapshoe caught between!the steps. Instantly he was jammed at the top. 'Shut it off!' he yelled...

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Chapter 19: The Balloonatic

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pp. 312-331

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE LIVED A YOUNG PRINCE WHO SEEMED TO BE IN TROUBLE. With the first four magical words of this title, The Balloonatic becomes a fairy tale. This is not a particularly comfortable genre for Keaton; he has experienced too much "reality" since Cops to be so naively immersed in whimsy alone. But the...

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Chapter 20: The Love Nest

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pp. 332-356

Shortly into the making of The Love Nest, Joseph M. Schenck determined that Keaton, whose talents he felt were being wasted in short films, should begin making features. The Keaton Studios suspended operations in March 1923 to prepare for the new...

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Chapter 21: Conclusion

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pp. 357-362

From his first released short, One Week, Keaton endowed his films with a romantic, inventive, stalwart persona, who WQn out over his "original" character, the unsympathetic Buzzard-by-proxy of The High Sign. Buster parallels Chaplin here, whose first slapstick "tramp" character was somewhat larcenous and even...


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pp. 365-376

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 377-385


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pp. 387-396

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Author Bio

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pp. 397

Gabriella Oldham, whose works include First Cut: Interviews with Film Editors and the children's musical Melville and the Yellow Umbrella, is involved in numerous fiction, nonfiction, film, theater,...

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809385942
E-ISBN-10: 0809385945
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330027
Print-ISBN-10: 0809330024

Page Count: 408
Illustrations: 22 B/w halftones, 1 line drawing
Publication Year: 2010